Wednesday, 30 April 2008


The rail companies love to bend commuters over a table and lube up for rear entry into their wallets. I caught the 6:39 from Exeter St Davids to London Paddington which got me there just after 9:20 with no hitches whatsoever. Had I wanted to take the 6:55, which gets in at 9:05, the ticket would have cost an extra £50. Lucky for me this was a trip to France to visit my Mum and therefore not a daily occurrence or my wallet would be bereft of banknotes, if slightly greasy to the touch.

At the point of booking the flight and discovering that Ryanair's impressive list of destinations is matched only by the ways in which they can charge you cash (£6 per item of luggage? £3 to check in at the airport? £6 to book using a credit card EVEN THOUGH THERE'S NO OTHER OPTION?) I had decided this was to be my last Stansted to Carcassonne flight. After this it'll be Exeter to Avignon and I'll learn enough French to use their trains to get me from Avignon to Carcassonne.

Anyway, this journey was train, tube, train, plane and then Mum would collect me from the airport. Not wanting to be panicked and having suffered the turgid display of ineptitude that is 'security' at Stansted airport I gave myself plenty of time. As it turned out, the whole journey was so good it was almost suspiciously enjoyable. The trip up to Paddington was smooth and quiet and the only time anyone disturbed me was when someone asked which way the buffet car was. The tube arrived at Paddington less than a minute after I got to the platform and I was at Liverpool Street in plenty of time for the Stansted Express. Whilst on that they kindly announced over the PA that there's engineering work planned over the bank holiday so Liverpool Street is shut and everyone has to get the tube from Tottenham Hale instead. That explains why the electronic timetable told me it'd take an hour longer than usual on the return leg of the trip. Apart from that and a non-English speaking tourist asking me by waving their ticket at me if they were on the right train (they were) there was nothing unusual about that part of the journey. At the airport the check-in queue was just long enough for it to take 15 minutes to clear and the notoriously huge security queue was the shortest I'd ever seen it: less than 10 minutes to get through and the bloke who frisked me (metal eyelets in my trainers, wait for the beep) liked my Disney t-shirt showing the seagulls from Finding Nemo.

Before I harp on about sitting in the Wetherspoons, drinking a beer and enjoying the groups of fellow holidaymakers around me creating that classic 'airport as a microcosm of life' environment, there was a minor incident which had me beaming with joy at the good nature of my fellow man. I popped into Boots to get some bits & bobs for Mum and completely failed to notice that when I fished my wallet out of my bag I inadvertently dropped the plastic bag containing my Euros. A bloke spotted it, tapped me on the shoulder and returned my £100 worth of sponds with a smile. I was that pleased I could have kissed him but he didn't look like he'd appreciate that so I just said thanks instead. While enjoying my pre-takeoff beer (this was the first time I'd got to the airport early enough to get one in) I also enjoyed the various groups of people around me, especially the group of 30- and 40-something 'lads' who were talking about the 'facking football, innit'. I could go on but we've all been through airports and who really give a shit?

The flight left late, as it always does from Stansted, but was smooth and hassle-free all the way and the prevailing winds meant we arrived basically on time as usual. After we'd cleared the cloud layer it was as bright and tranquil as you'd expect. The breaks in the cloud began to appear as we were traversing the channel and gave wonderful views of white horses dancing across the sea. After a minute or so of that we crossed the French coast and the seascape gave way to the irregular patchwork of French fields and grey arterial roads. On the approach to Carcassonne the clouds were sporadic enough to cast individual shadows on the ground which looked as though someone had spilt a glass of water on an expensive carpet. As usual we flew right over the medieval city and marvelled at the aerial view for which the original inhabitants would have praised the Lord. On landing, the senior flight attendant got everyone laughing by inadvertently welcoming us all to Krakow before correcting himself rather shamefacedly. When he gave the usual warning "Be careful when opening the overhead lockers as some items may have moved" I immediately thought "Yeah, they've gone to Poland!" Thankfully, I'm aware I'm not all that funny so I didn't actually say that out loud.

A pleasant 40-minute drive got us to Mum's place in Quillan where I got to play with the dogs, clock the list of 'jobs' I'm doing over the next couple of days (Which includes chainsaw time. Nice.) and eat dinner before we went out to see the opening night of the Chemin des Artistes en Haute Vallee De L'Aude. That is, as the name suggests, an art 'exhibition' where the artists display their works in various locations (presumably near their homes/studios) in the Aude High Valley area, of which Quillan is basically the centre. There were a dozen or so canvases by an artist who looked like he copied photographs but did a relatively good job on most, plus a free gig which is what we really went for. The local Rock group 'G63' did a decent set of their own material and then went straight into the covers section by performing a French-language rendition of Queen's "We will rock you", an experience not to be missed. After 90 minutes of enjoying the performance and bemoaning the bad lighting (the venue's more like a theatre so no decent spotlights and the front row of the band were in semi-darkness most of the time) which meant none of my photos were coming out well we gave up and came home.

Now I'm off to Bedfordshire and looking forward to tomorrow's hard labour.

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